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Desperate improvisations in the face of imminent disaster saw us through the early years of the fight. They also gave us the war’s greatest movie.
December 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 8
America’s favorite World War II movie has led a charmed life. While it was being filmed, each looming disaster turned out to be a cleverly disguised blessing, and after its completion everything that could go right did go right. But of all the lucky accidents it enjoyed on its way to screen immortality, the fact that shooting began before there was a finished script may have been the most providential.
Had there been a completed screenplay before filming started in May 1942, the studio would have been obliged to send a copy to the Bureau of Motion Pictures. The bureau, a division of the Office of War Information, was nothing less than a ministry of propaganda that sat in judgment on the content of Hollywood’s products. Although the studios’ cooperation with the BMP was on a voluntary basis, bureaucrats were nevertheless allowed to sit in on story conferences, suggest changes, and on occasion write patriotic speeches for insertion into scripts.
When the BMP finally viewed the finished film, its members were unhappy about the character of Rick—he was too cynical for too long—and concerned about the way our Allies the French were depicted. Warner Brothers might well have made the changes requested except that on November 8, 1942, American and British troops landed at various points along the North African coast, including Casablanca. This led to the first major victory against the Nazis since the war began, and the film was rushed into one of Warners’ Manhattan theaters, the Hollywood, on November 26. In January Casablanca was put into general release—exactly when Roosevelt was meeting with Churchill and de Gaulle at, of course, Casablanca.
This fortuitous confluence of history and Hollywood hokum so excited Jack Warner that he considered adding an epilogue to the movie, using clips of the Casablanca Conference. Cooler heads prevailed, however, and Churchill and Roosevelt remained confined to the newsreels. Casablanca became a smash hit anyway. All those connected with the film, even bit players, found their careers shining more brightly than ever, with one exception—Murray Burnett, who conceived the play on which the movie was based. Burnett was clever enough to invent the “letters of transit” device that sets the plot in motion but not smart enough to see a lawyer before signing his contract. Here’s what happened.
In the summer of 1938 Burnett, a teacher at Central Commercial High School in New York City, traveled to Nazi-occupied Vienna with his wife to try to help her stepfather’s family escape from Austria. There the Burnetts learned about the “refugee trail” across the Italian Alps to France, down to Marseilles, then Casablanca, Lisbon, and finally, perhaps, America. After doing what they could in Vienna, they began their return, stopping off in a French resort town on the Mediterranean. There they dropped into a small nightclub, La Belle Aurore—a place crowded with refugees speaking all the languages of Europe, peppered with both French and German officials, and featuring, to complete the international ambience, a black piano player who performed old Tin Pan Alley favorites.
The café seemed to Burnett the perfect setting for a play. The music recalled his college days at Cornell, when he used to anger his fraternity brothers by constantly playing his favorite record, “As Time Goes By.” The European experience stayed with him, and during the summer of 1940 (France had fallen; the Vichy government marched to the German tune), Burnett and his collaborator, Joan Alison, put it on paper. The setting is Rick’s Café Américain, a Casablanca nightclub with a black piano player named Sam. Cynical Rick Blaine, once a famous criminal lawyer in Paris, is proprietor. When his long-lost love, fellow American Lois Meredith, turns up at his bar with the Czech patriot Victor Laszlo, who is fleeing the Nazis, the plot’s fuse is lit. In the play Rick manages to get them out of Casablanca and then surrenders himself to the German and Vichy French authorities. The title was Everybody Comes to Rick's.
Within six weeks the play was finished and optioned to the producers Martin Gabel and Carly Wharton, who thought it needed the input and cachet of a “name author.” Ben Hecht and Robert Sherwood, among others, were sent scripts, and all came to the same conclusion: no major rewrite was necessary. Still, the producers remained uneasy about a play in which the heroine seduces the hero, even for so crucial a matter as letters of transit. In time they dropped the option. Fed up with the New York theater scene (this was their third play that had been optioned and never produced), Burnett and Alison told their agent to try Hollywood.
On December 8, 1941, a story analyst at Warner Brothers appraised the play in such terms as “excellent melodrama,” “sophisticated hokum,” and “a box-office natural—for Bogart, or Cagney, or Raft in out-of-the-usual roles and perhaps Mary Astor.” America’s entry into the war was at least partially responsible for the producer Hal B. Wallis’s interest. Previously both Broadway and Hollywood had been under pressure from isolationists in Congress to refrain from portraying Nazis as villains, fearing it might endanger our neutrality, but events subsequent to December 7 changed that. Warner Brothers offered to buy the screen rights for twenty thousand dollars. Burnett and Alison grabbed it. They signed what studio attorneys assured them was a standard contract (as, indeed, it may have been), which turned over to Warners the rights “of every kind and character whatsoever, whether or not now known, recognized or contemplated, for all purposes whatsoever.” From that point on the studio owned Rick, Sam, and the whole gang. No meeting with Burnett or Alison was necessary to change the American Lois Meredith to the Norwegian Ilsa Lund or Rick from a married lawyer to a bachelor gunrunner. Nor were the original authors consulted in 1955, when Warners’ updated the film for television and the villains became Russian spies, or in the 1980s, when a weekly series was telecast. In 1983 Burnett and Alison sued Warners’ for “cheapening their fictional characters,” but they lost.
Hal Wallis gave the one-set play to the Epstein twins, Julius and Philip, who were known for their witty dialogue and their skill at writing with particular actors in mind. In Casablanca they were continually being thrown off-balance. The leading roles, they were first told, would go to Dennis Morgan, Ann Sheridan, and Ronald Reagan. Before long Humphrey Bogart had replaced Morgan, requiring a shift in characterization. The story persists that Jack Warner first offered the part to George Raft (who had previously turned down several starring roles that then went to Bogart—including High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon) and that Raft rejected it. However, memos in the Warner files indicate the contrary: that Raft requested the part but was turned down. The reason why Reagan was passed over for the role of a Czech patriot is less of a mystery than why he was ever considered.
Two months after the Epsteins began writing came word that it might be interesting if the leading lady were a beautiful European. To WaIlis, “beautiful European” meant either Hedy Lamarr or Ingrid Bergman, but Louis B. Mayer wouldn’t hear of diverting Lamarr from MGM, and David O. Selznick, to whom Bergman was under contract, was in New York and not returning phone calls. Desperate, WaIlis flew to New York, checked into the Carlyle, where Selznick was staying, and called him on the house phone. It worked. Selznick saw him and agreed, in lieu of a finished script, to allow the Epstein brothers to give Bergman a verbal rundown of the plot. She was not impressed. The role wasn’t demanding enough; it would do nothing for her career; the plot was difficult to follow. Then she heard that the ballerina Vera Zorina had been given the part of Maria in For Whom the Bell Tolls, a role Bergman had set her heart on. She agreed to play Ilsa Lund.
Wallis now had his Ilsa and his Rick and, after he promised Paul Henreid costar billing, his Victor Laszlo. He also had (since John Huston had left for the war) the best director on the Warner lot—Michael Curtiz. Curtiz was a tall, hawk-nosed Hungarian who had never mastered English but who had nevertheless directed more than sixty films. He felt that the Casablanca’s plot, as the Epsteins had devised it, lacked menace. The screenplay had no villain. The French prefect of police, Rinaldo—later Renault—was too charming to be threatening. Curtiz suggested expanding the role of Strasser, the German official, to make him a symbol of Nazi brutality.
The Epsteins made the changes Curtiz asked for. They made the changes Bogart wanted—gave Rick more depth and cut out the self-pity—but they were less successful with Wallis’s desire for a less downbeat ending. Because of Bergman’s limited availability, filming had absolutely to begin on May 25. After the Epsteins left for Washington to write Frank Capra’s propaganda series Why We Fight, Wallis and Curtiz began working on the script around the clock. (They even passed up going to the gala premiere of their movie Yankee Doodle Dandy, which Curtiz in his scrambled English described as “the pinochle of my career.”) Alarmed by how much remained to be done, Wallis hired the young Howard Koch to work on it. Later Wallis would bring in yet another screenwriter, Casey Robinson, to strengthen the love interest. All told, seven writers worked on the screenplay at one time or another.
Despite so many cooks, the broth was not finished by May 25. The last section was still missing, and the tension, as the actors gathered for rehearsals, was palpable. Bergman asked, not unreasonably, how she could be expected to play a part in which it was not yet clear which male lead she was in love with. Bogart became as taciturn as the character he was playing. He had to contend on the set with an incomplete script and off the set with an alcoholic wife who accused him of having an affair with Bergman. Bogart’s life had become so unpleasant that he showed up on the set even on days when he had no scenes.
The bright spot in the prevailing gloom was the German-born actor Conrad Veidt. His role as the ruthless Major Strasser was at odds with his natural charm and his ingratiating, self-deprecating humor. He had won screen immortality in 1919 as the sleepwalker in The Cabinet of Dr. CaIigari. When Hitler took over, Veidt left Germany and established himself in British films. His presence in London proved a godsend to Paul von Henreid when the Austrian actor found himself stranded there (he was filming Goodbye Mr. Chips) after the German Anschluss. Henreid (he soon dropped the “von") would undoubtedly have been interned as an enemy alien after Britain declared war on Germany had it not been for Veidt’s special pleading with British authorities.
Another man grateful to be on that Hollywood set was Marcel Dalio, a French actor who had had major roles in Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game. In Casablanca he was relegated to the bit part of Rick’s croupier and was not even given a screen credit. He and his wife, Madeleine LeBeau, who played Rick’s discarded mistress, had fled France just ahead of the Germans. They arrived in Hollywood with seventeen dollars and no English. Dalio, born Israel Mosche Blauschild, would later learn that when the Nazis captured Paris, they posted photographs of him on street corners to alert Parisians to what “a typical Jew” looked like. Now—Hollywood, 1942—Dalio and LeBeau sat with Veidt and Henreid on the Warner sound stage, patiently waiting. From their perspective there were worse things in life than a late script.
There was a reunion of sorts taking place on the set: Casablanca had perhaps the most distinguished supporting cast ever assembled, and most were in Hollywood because they had fled their homelands to escape the Nazis.
When two-thirds of the movie had been shot (from the two-thirds of the script that existed), Koch began delivering pages of dialogue to the set on the morning when that sequence was to be shot. Inevitably Koch and Curtiz came to loggerheads. Besides the pressures of time, there was the matter of emphasis in the story. Curtiz played up the romance. Koch was more interested in the relevance of the plot to the world struggle against fascism. “Surprisingly,” he said later, “these disparate approaches somehow meshed, and perhaps it was partly this tug-of-war between Curtiz and me that gave the film a certain balance.”
With only one week to go there was still no satisfactory ending. In the play Rick gave himself up to the tender mercies of the Nazis. But Wallis thought that with Bogart playing Rick, audiences might burn down the theaters if that scene were retained. Alternatives were considered and reconsidered: Rick leaves with Ilsa, Ilsa stays with Rick, Rick is killed helping Ilsa and Victor escape. It was at this eleventh hour that the Epstein twins suddenly returned from Washington. Simultaneously (according to them), they hit on the solution: In order to effect Ilsa and Victor’s escape, Rick shoots Major Strasser at the airport in front of Renault. The police arrive. Renault says, “Major Strasser’s been shot.” He pauses. He looks at Rick. Rick looks at him. Renault says, “Round up the usual suspects.”
This was everything Wallis had hoped for, and he himself supplied the last line of the movie: “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” By the time this scene was shot, Bergman had left the Warner lot for Paramount and For Whom the Bell Tolls (Zorina had proved unsatisfactory). Not until Bergman saw Casablanca in a theater did she learn the final ending.
Now the only long face on the Warner lot belonged to the composer Max Steiner. The man who had written the background music for Gone with the Wind rebelled at the idea of composing a score based on someone else’s song. “As Time Goes By,” had been written by Herman Hupfeld in 1931, and Steiner considered it trash. He insisted that Wallis allow him to write a new song for Rick and Ilsa. Wallis, recalling how difficult it had been to create the illusion that Dooley Wilson (Sam) was playing the piano (he couldn’t play a note), was reluctant to give Steiner the go-ahead. The conflict was rendered moot when it was learned that Bergman had already cut off her hair for her new role as Maria. Reshooting scenes that included her was now impossible. Hupfeld’s song stayed.
For all its banality, “As Time Goes By” was the perfect theme song for Casablanca, a movie rife with Hollywood clichés. Some have suggested that the reason for its enduring hold on audiences is the warm familiarity of its plot and characters from previous films. The late Lincoln Kirstein put it this way: “Two clichés make us laugh but a hundred clichés move us because we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, celebrating a reunion.”
Perhaps. But there is another kind of reunion taking place in Casablanca that has gone largely unnoticed. It is the reunion of actors displaced by the Second World War. This was perhaps the most distinguished supporting cast ever assembled, and most were in Hollywood because of the upheaval of the war. Not only Paul Henreid, Conrad Veidt, Marcel Dalio, and Madeleine LeBeau but also Peter Lorre, Helmut Dantine, S. Z. Sakall, Ludwig Stossel, Curt Bois, and Ilka Gruning had fled their homelands to escape the Nazis.
Their presence in Casablanca was a subliminal reminder that the war was real even if Rick’s Café Américain was not.